Toys ‘R’ Us workers won a crucial severance pay victory last year after the company closed its US stores. Private equity firms KKR, Bain, and Vornado had bought up the legendary toy store just a decade before, saddled the company with debt, and left the 33,000 laid-off employees without access to the millions they were owed in severance.
But rather than letting private equity vultures enrich themselves on the backs of employees who’d been with the store for decades, workers fought back, taking creative actions across the country and pushing legislators and pension funds to get on board—and eventually won a $20 million severance fund. Their victory was part of a broader movement—one that’s been fighting for justice for retail workers for years. Under the umbrella of United for Respect, retail workers from corporations like Toys ‘R’ Us, Sears, and Walmart are joining together to demand a just economy.
United for Respect made headlines just last week by filing a resolution at a Walmart shareholders meeting to allow workers on the company’s corporate board. While the resolution didn’t pass, the news—alongside the appearance of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was invited by Walmart workers—was a welcome addition to the conversation about the role of workers in corporate decision-making.
In addition to the waves made by worker organizing, talk around shifting power on corporate boards is growing as Democratic presidential candidates elaborate on their labor proposals. The Sanders campaign has announced it’s working on a plan to require corporations to give workers a share of corporate board seats, as well as a proposal that would require large businesses to direct a portion of their stocks into a worker-controlled fund. And Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act – which would require companies with more than $1 billion in annual revenue to allow workers to elect at least 40 percent of board members – last year before announcing her presidential run.
Andrea Dehlendorf and Ann Marie Reinhart told Inequality.org more about the importance of workers on corporate boards, the need for fair workweek scheduling, and why Wall Street is a culprit in retail bankruptcies. Andrea serves as Co-Director of United for Respect, and Ann Marie is a United for Respect leader and former Toys ‘R’ Us employee.
How did you get involved with organizing people working in the retail sector?
Andrea: In 2011, I started working with a group of people from Walmart to build a national organization to change Walmart from within. We built a national community where people support each other with the challenges they face in these low wage, unstable jobs and speak out publicly to get Walmart to change their practices. We started winning real change at Walmart as OUR Walmart and are thrilled that people across almost every major retailer are now joining United for Respect.
Ann Marie: In the spring of 2018, Toys ‘R’ Us was going bankrupt. A co-worker told me about an online Facebook group called the Dead Giraffe Society, where people across the country were talking about what was happening with the bankruptcy. At first, everyone was reminiscing about their time working at Toys ‘R’ Us. I connected with people I had worked with years before. One day, someone from United for Respect asked the group if anyone wanted to talk to a reporter from Buzzfeed about what was happening. Some people were scared to talk to reporters because their stores were still open, but my store had closed down a week before. I did an interview, and the next thing I knew I had professional photographers coming to my house to go with the story!
Tell us about the evolution and union of OUR Walmart and Rise Up Retail. What brought your work together?
Andrea: Walmart is the largest corporate employer in the world, with 1.5 million people in the U.S. alone. Our members always believed that by changing how Walmart treats the people whose hard work makes Walmart profitable, we could change conditions for all of the 16 million people in retail. Every time we won change at Walmart, like raising pay to $11 an hour or winning paid family leave, other retailers started to change, too, and our organization began to grow beyond Walmart. When we started talking to the people who were being put out on the street because of the Wall Street-driven bankruptcy of Toys ‘R’ Us, we jumped at the chance to join together to get justice. And now, folks from Sears, Kmart and other retailers are joining as well.
Ann Marie: The process has been amazing! Andrea and I met at our first action in D.C. in May of 2018, where we met Senator Bernie Sanders. There were just six of us—we call ourselves the original six—and we went to do an action at the American Investment Council with supporters, including the team from OUR Walmart. Donna, who worked at a Walmart in New Jersey, walked up to me and said we are from OUR Walmart—we have your back, we are there for you. I’ve seen her at many meetings since then. Now all of us from Toys ‘R’ Us have their backs at Walmart. I am humbled and proud to be a part of building United for Respect.
You have a very active social media presence. How has that affected your organizing?
Ann Marie: Well, I found out about and joined the organization through Facebook. Right now, I am really active on Twitter which reaches so many people. As part of our campaign, we went after the private equity firms Bain and KKR, who are on Twitter. Campaigning on social media was part of how we were able to change the conversation about why Toys ‘R’ Us went bankrupt. At first, all the media said it happened because of competition with Walmart and Amazon. Through social media, we could drive the conversation about the real reason, which is that private equity firms had saddled Toys ‘R’ Us with so much debt that they couldn’t invest to stay profitable.
Andrea: We reach millions of people working in retail through social media. On Facebook, Reddit and other channels, people who work for major corporations in low-wage jobs are sharing their experiences, supporting each other and connecting to campaigns like the ones we run to make real change in jobs, the economy, and our democracy. If you’re one person struggling on your own in a job that doesn’t pay enough with a schedule that makes it impossible to be there for your kids, it can be a very isolating, lonely experience. When you connect with others on social media who are going through the same thing, you realize you’re not alone, that this is happening to so many others, and that, together, you can do something about it.
Companies like Sears and Toys ‘R’ Us have been in the news for offering executives millions of dollars in bonuses while they lay off workers. What would you like to tell the executives who’ve taken in that money?
Ann Marie: They didn’t earn that money. They stole that money from us — the employees who made them that money in the first place. They get bonuses regardless, but when a company is bankrupt they shouldn’t get that. It should have gone to the employees. Most of them took that money and ran. We have to get the laws changed so they can’t do this. We’re working to pass a bankruptcy reform bill in New Jersey and enact new regulations nationally so that this can’t happen again.
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Andrea: The work of Ann Marie and others build these companies and make their profits. Yet, under the current rule, high-paid corporate and Wall Street executives walk away with millions while they’re left with nothing. We have to change the rules.